Josh Norman vs. Larry Fitzgerald
Many Panthers fans will remember the image of Larry Fitzgerald beating Richard Marshall and Chris Harris for a crazy catch in double coverage. Fitzgerald abused the Panthers as he had only just begun his postseason onslaught, one of the greatest post season tears by a receiver in NFL history. With a third string struggling quarterback in Ryan Lindley and a bottom of the barrel rushing attack, the Cardinals will likely look to lean on Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on offense to provide a spark. The Panthers cannot allow this. Ever since Josh Norman took over as the number one cornerback, he has faced and shut down a very good group of receivers, including the likes of Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Marques Colston, and others. We had seen flashes from Norman for his entire career, but he could never seem to get it together. He finally is showing us the kind of player he is, the kind of player he can be. This player needs to lock down one of the Cardinals big time receiving threats, or the images from Panthers past will quickly become highlights for Sundays game.
Bobby Massie vs. Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson has been on a tear as of late, creating momentum for his fellow pass rushers in the process. The defensive line has sacked quarterbacks 17 times in the past 5 weeks, accruing nearly half of the season's 40 sacks since the bye week. The Panthers defense as a whole has come alive and it all correlates with the revival of the pass rush. The Cardinals have a few game breaking offensive weapons, if they are forced to become one dimensional and throw the ball near exclusively, "Big Money" and the d-line need to pin their ears back and get after him.
Kelvin Benjamin vs. Patrick Peterson
The Cardinals may be limping on offense, but their defense remains intact and ready to turn this game into a low scoring slugfest at the moments notice. The Cardinals have a secondary slowly measuring up to the Legion of Boom, including Antonio Cromartie and Patrick Peterson at corner. Kelvin Benjamin showed earlier this year against Seattle that he can play with the big boys however, making several excellent catches against Richard Sherman. However, his production has declined as the season came to a close. His 1,000 yard season (while impressive) could have been so much more if he didn't drop so many passes this season. His inexcusable drop on a long bomb from Cam last week came while he was on an island, completely wide open. Against a team with this kind of defense, Benjamin needs to make those catches and continue to haul in those highlight reel circus catches we've come to see. Benjamin can erase all his sins from the regular season against one of the very best, as Patrick Peterson looks to be 3-0 against his counterpart from the 2011 draft.
Calais Campbell vs. Byron Bell/Andrew Norwell
A big part of the Panthers surge as of late comes from an offensive line finally gelling. Mike Remmers has proven to be a solid pickup at right tackle and Trai Turner appears to be everything scouts thought of him. The right side of the line has definitely stepped up, while Andrew Norwell and Byron Bell have finally seemed to come along on the left side. This week brings some big competition however. Calais Campbell is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, and has played outstanding football for the past several years. He can absolutely destory the Panthers run game and keep Cam Newton uncomfortable in the pocket should the Byron Bell we know and (love?) come to play. Andrew Norwell appears a revelation as a UDFA, but he could get abused by Campbell as well. The Panthers need to have a game plan for this Cardinals pass rusher.
We all should remember the painful 2008 playoff exit for the Panthers. The team went 12-4 for one of the better seasons in franchise history, boasting a powerful new-found rushing duo in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, aka Double Trouble. Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad looked to be as dominant as ever, all paired with a stout defense and pass rush. However, it all came crashing down when Larry Fitzgerald ate the secondary alive and Jake Delhomme turned the ball over 6 total times. Since then, the Cardinals have for the most part had the Panthers number save for a meaningless game in 2010. It's time for redemption. The Panthers of old have come and gone, but players such as Thomas Davis, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Kalil, and Charles Johnson all should remember this game. And they all will feel the motivation.
Panthers fans who get to attend this playoff game, get LOUD. Show the rest of the league why we made the playoffs, and why we "Run the South". Sure, maybe the Panthers don't belong in the playoffs. But we're here aren't we? As Machiavelli once said "The ends justify the means". Every team plays every year to make the playoffs. We made the playoffs, therefore our season was a success. The Cardinals team that ended the 2008 Panthers went on to play in an unforgettable Super Bowl. The 2011 Seattle Seahawks that are used so often as a comparison for this team went on to thrash the Saints in an all time shocker in the playoffs. Why can't we be that team? I believe anything is possible in the playoffs, but realistically the Panthers probably won't make the Super Bowl. But we do have the chance to ruin the postseason for some teams, and there is nothing I enjoy more as a Panthers fan than knowing "Hey, we didn't win the Super Bowl that year, but we made sure another team didn't either." Let's Keep Pounding and beat down every team that gets in our way.